It was always going to be a tough ask for the young Scots, drawn against their nearest neighbours, the Netherlands and Ukraine, and it proved to be just too much for Scot Gemmill’s squad as a fourth defeat saw them finish a distant 12 points behind the English.
In the end a wonderful free-kick from Reiss Nelson, the Arsenal midfielder on loan to German outfit Hoffenheim, gave England their seventh win of the campaign, but it took a dreadful ball from David Bates, putting Ross McCrorie in trouble which led to the decisive moment, the midfielder tripping Kieran Dowell as he picked off the pass.
That split-second undid all the heroic defensive work in which Bates and Hibs kid Ryan Porteous proved rocks in central defence, while goalkeeper Ross Doohan produced a string of impressive saves to keep England at bay until the hour mark.
Just as the Scots looked as if they were about to escape with a single goal defeat, Dowell struck as the game moved into added-on time, lashing a rising shot into the net from 20 yards.
It did, however, put a fairer reflection on the final scoreline, England fully meriting the three points as they emphasised the gulf between them and the rest of the qualifying group, the Scots taking until the 84th minute to test Dean Henderson, the goalkeeper diving full length to push a shot from Lewis Morgan – the home side’s brightest performer on the night – aside.
It had been a typically Scottish qualifying campaign from Gemmill’s youngsters, the promise suggested by home and away wins over the Netherlands more than tempered by draws against both Andorra and Latvia, a record in stark contrast to that of England, who boasted seven wins and just two draws from their nine matches prior to this visit to Tynecastle.
Any hopes the Scots might have had of claiming a play-off spot, a second chance to clinch a place in next summer’s finals in Italy, had evaporated with that defeat by Ukraine in Kiev five days previously.
As such, this match had taken on the mantle of being a dead rubber, but the fact it involved the Auld Enemy meant it was anything but meaningless as far as those taking to the pitch were concerned, the small matter of national pride, if nothing else, very much at stake.
England’s Under-21 side hadn’t lost in their previous 34 qualifying matches, a measure of the enormity of the task facing the young Scots, beaten 3-1 in Middlesbrough a year ago and by the same scoreline in the semi-final of the Toulon Tournament in the south of France in the summer.
And the confidence built throughout the years at this level was evident from the start, former Hearts player Aidy Boothroyd’s side strong, lithe, athletic and displaying menacing pace, all comfortable on the ball as they switched the point of attack from side to side.
And didn’t they look huge, Tammy Abraham towering head and shoulders above his Chelsea club-mate Billy Gilmour, the striker just one of three Stamford Bridge youngsters in England’s starting line-up – although all three are on loan elsewhere.
It left the Scots, hard pressed at times, to hit on the counter attack, but as much possession as the English enjoyed in the opening half-hour, Gemmill’s players stuck doggedly to their task, with a header from Jake Clarke-Salter which soared over the bar the nearest the visitors came to testing goalkeeper Doohan.
In fact, the Scots could have taken the lead when Bates’ knockdown from Morgan’s free-kick fell at the feet of Ross McCrorie, but he blazed over from eight yards out.
Harvey Barnes sent a shot fizzing over, but then worked Doohan with a shot which crashed off the chest of the goalkeeper before Abraham escaped the clutches of Bates and Porteous, for once only to send his acrobatic effort whistling wide.
However, a goal for England looked inevitable, the outstretched left boot of Doohan denying Abraham after he’d enjoyed the break of the ball inside a packed Scotland penalty area where Bates and Porteous were being forced to work overtime, the Hibs defender getting enough of a touch to send a Joshua Onomah shot just off target to ensure the Scots went in at the interval all-square.
However, Gemmill’s players knew from the experience of France in June when they actually led at half-time, England were well capable of changing the entire complexion of a match within a short space of time, the fingertips of Doohan as he got down to turn Barnes’ daisy-cutter round the post continuing to keep them at arm’s length on this occasion.
All that hard work was undone on the hour-mark. Bates played a sloppy pass to Ross McCrorie, which was taken by Dowell before it reached the midfielder, drawing a foul. Nelson stepped up to curl a superb free-kick into the top corner of Doohan’s net.
Having watched his side work so hard to hold England, scorers of seven against Andorra the other night, at bay, Gemmill would no doubt be furious that such a simple mistake had proved to be their undoing.
And at the death Dowell wrapped up a win in which Scotland managed just that single shot of note from Morgan.
Scotland: Doohan, Smith, Porteous, Bates, Taylor, Cadden, Ross McCrorie, Campbell, Shaw (Middleton 46), Morgan, Gilmour (Ferguson 61).
Substitutes: Robby McCrorie, McIntyre, Mallan, Watt, Williamson.
England: Henderson, Bassaka, Tomori, Clarke-Salter, DaSilva, Onomah (Foden 71), Dowell, Nelson (Sessegnon 73), Solanke, Barnes, Abraham.
Substitutes: Gunn, Cook, Konsa, Lookman, Calvert-Lewin.
Referee: Marco Di Bello (Italy).